Unraveling is a heart-wrenching, near-historical love story set in the late-1980s in Chicago’s near north side. It is contemporaneous with the AIDS crisis and institutionalized, deep-seated homophobia.
Randy Kay is nearly set to end his life, after finally coming to terms with the fact he’s gay, but his wife, Violet, steps in with a compromise: he begin to accept and love himself for who he is. It’s an earth-shattering moment for Randy, who has never had physical contact with a man, but knows that’s his truth. It was something Violet had a nagging suspicion about during their marriage, but wasn’t able to speak to, or accept, until she realized how toxic Randy felt his life had become.
Randy seeks help through therapy and meeting up with other gay men who can be a support. His tentative forays into gay culture of Boystown (North Halstead Street in Lakeview) are fraught with anxiety and feeling he’s an outsider looking in. On one of these trips, Randy encounters John, a paramedic from the Chicago Fire Department, but is too timid to engage. Over time, however, Randy is able to make some friends with other gay men. Men in committed and loving relationships, like his own marriage had been.
As Randy explores, he still lives in his two-bedroom apartment with Violet and his young son, Henry, though Randy now sleeps on the couch. It is through a blind set-up from his best gay friends that Randy meets John a second time. For John, his life has been a struggle to find a solid partner. He thought he’d maybe found someone, but it soon fizzled in spectacular fashion. The connection between Randy and John is instantaneous and it marks the end of Randy’s marriage. Violet can’t manage her grief any longer and turns to her conservative family for help. And, while Randy is finally living a true life with the most happiness that he’s experienced as an adult, his personal life is tossed into a whirlwind. The battle to continue to live true and free might cost Randy his relationships with John, Henry, and Violet.
This is a touching and tender book, with a believable plight and three extremely compelling characters in Randy, John and Violet, who take turns narrating. As Randy and Violet’s marriage is unraveling, there’s a lot of grief, uncertainty, and fits and starts as Randy learns to overcome his longstanding self-hatred. Randy and John face situations that could be physically and emotionally harrowing. Violet’s position was interesting, and I could see how she struggled under her own insecurities, as well as the weight of her parents’ expectations and bigoted directives. It seemed as if she wouldn’t do the right thing, but Randy’s not willing to miss out on Henry’s life and he pulls out all the stops to ensure his parental rights are secure. The rebuilding of his relationships with John and Violet is important, and necessary, and exhilarating.
I loved how much affection and support John gave when Randy truly needed it. I was fighting back tears in the final confrontation between Violet and Randy. The connection between Randy and his son was so strong, and I was so glad to see how it flourished and developed—especially in the face of the bigotry Henry experienced through his grandparents. The epilogue was far better than I could have imagined; it left me with all the amazing feels.